The morally questionable literary universe of Patricia Highsmith has provided filmmakers with ample opportunities to explore the persona of the anti-hero, from René Clément’s stylish Plein Soleil (1960) to Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-nominated The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and Roger Spottiswoode’s barely released Ripley under Ground (2005). In 1951, Alfred Hitchock adapted her novel Strangers on a Train, and delivered a classic thriller that aligned Highsmith’s twisted plotting with the trademark set pieces that audiences had come to associate with the Master of Suspense. Maurizio Lucidi’s The Designated Victim is an unofficial 1971 giallo adaptation of the same story, and due to its emphasis on psychology as opposed to suspense, and the material obsessions of the nouveaux riches, perhaps has more in common with Highsmith’s cynical world view.
Stefano (Tomas Milian) seems to be a self-made success in that he runs his own advertising agency, owns two gorgeous homes, and has no shortage of early 1970s fashions in which to wander around Milan with his mistress, the beautiful model Fabienne (Katia Christine). Feeling stifled by his marriage to the controlling Luisa (Marisa Bartoli), he has arranged to sell his company and relocate to Venezuela, only for his dreams of financial and emotional freedom to be thwarted by his wife, who controls the company shares. A series of chance encounters with the eccentric Count Matteo Tiepolo (Pierre Clémenti) leads to an unlikely friendship and the two men share their frustrations, but the Count prefers ‘radical solutions’ and proposes that he will kill Stefano’s wife and, in exchange, Stefano must murder the brother who is making his own life a misery. Stefano devises his own plan to gain financial independence, and forges his wife’s signature on official documents in order to complete the sale of the company, but the Count strangles Luisa, leading Stefano to become a murder suspect.
The Designated Victim is less sensational than such genre favourites as Twist the Nerve of Death (1971) or Deep Red (1975), which is perhaps why it is more obscure than the films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. It is also a tragedy rather than a thriller, with an emphasis on baroque atmosphere; the murder of Stefano’s wife occurs off-screen, and the signature zooms are largely reined in. However, the director’s attempts at psychological complexity are undermined by awkward casting choices and a twist ending which is admittedly surprising, but does not entirely make sense. Milian is best remembered for portraying the tough cop Nico Giraldi in a series of brutally efficient Italian thrillers, and seems uncomfortable when being berated by his wife, or manipulated by the Count. As the scheming antagonist, Clémenti borders on camp, his almost mystical appearances accompanied by Luis Enríquez Bacalov’s overly lush score, and it is only when he is seen in his palatial home in Venice, surrounded by his art and antiquities, that he exudes regal menace. With a narrative that stagnates when it should accelerate, Lucidi’s film will probably be consigned to the also-rans of the giallo genre.